“I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would be greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.” (General Dyer, 1919)
The above statement is a declaration of the sheer lack of remorse and empathy that Brigadier General Dyer expressed at his trial following a brutal massacre that is deemed the beginning of the end of the British Empire in India. On April 13, 1919, unarmed protesters gathered for a meeting at Jallianwala Bagh, a city park in Amritsar. It had been a turbulent week in the holy city for Sikhs, as there were several anti-colonial protests amidst festivities for Baisakhi. As a result, many of the people coming from outside the city for the festival were unaware of the ban on public gatherings to control the protests. What followed was not a peaceful interaction between the public and law enforcement. Instead, it was a display of brute force and colonial power as General Dyer had his troops surround the park and fire indiscriminately on the public without warning to leave the premises.
So intense was the firing that a 10-minute round ended in the death of 379 people, according to British records, whereas the Indian records claimed hundreds more. The correct death toll of the massacre is still unclear given several competing records. The most viable estimations can be found through archives of personal accounts written by those present in the park that were later discovered. One of the survivors Udham Singh was serving water with fellows from his orphanage when the Massacre took place. He became a celebrated revolutionary hero in India as his witnessing of the event led him to seek revenge by assassinating lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time, Michael O’Dwyer. In the meantime, Singh worked tirelessly in the Ghadar Party and was eventually executed at the Pentonville Prison, London in 1940.
Resistance and no reconciliation
Despite occurring over a century ago, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre holds a distinct position in the consciousness of the Indian subcontinent. While the 1857 War of Independence is often cited as the official beginning of the anti-colonial movement in India, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre served as another major spark. It displayed to key figures of the independence movement that independence was indeed inevitable, and that there was something inherently wrong with the dynamic set up by colonial rule and how its subjects were treated.
There has never been a formal apology or reconciliation mission from the UK. With this in mind, it is important to reflect in April and beyond what led to and followed an event like the Amritsar Massacre. In a speech recalled years later, the leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said, “The majority report of the Hunter Committee is one more flagrant and disgraceful instance that there can be no justice when there is a conflict between an Englishman and an Indian.” This realization is the cornerstone of resistance in the region, something that the past few years have highlighted once again as several countries in the subcontinent go through their own phases of resistance against elite powers.
As disturbing as the Massacre was General Dyer’s trial that revealed the true intentions and mindset under which this extent of violence was undertaken. General Dyer’s statements during his trial revealed that he believed himself to be operating from a moral standpoint, and that peaceful protesting was against the moral sentiment of the British Raj in India at the time. General Dyer admitted that he chose to fire even though he didn’t have and could have tried to disperse the crowd in other ways before trying such extreme means “Because they would have come back and laughed at it,” thus justifying the relentless firing beyond reasonable action that would not have been warranted otherwise. It is worth noting that General Dyer and his family had been based in the Subcontinent for quite a few years. Reginald General Dyer was born in Murree (now Pakistan) and returned from military training in Sandhurst to join the Bengal branch of the British Army in India.
In the aftermath of the massacre, there were two groups among the British imperialists: those who believed the toughness undertaken by General Dyer was warranted and that any other course of action would have been a sign of weakness, and those who believed that General Dyer undermined the Empire’s legitimacy and that Indians needed greater autonomy to remain loyal to the British. Regardless, General Dyer was removed from his position, only for support to pour in for him. An article written only a few days later, titled “The Man Who Saved India,” lamented that the General had to act as he did to prevent worse things being done by Indians, and presented an appeal to British people to support him by donating to a fund. This was not surprising as back in Britain the colonial sentiment was that of superiority and a saviour complex when it came to Indians.
The Amritsar massacre and its aftermath may be a chapter in history, but it continues to be relevant in the Indian subcontinent. However, its relevance and symbolic importance does tend to be highlighted only in historical academic research rather than in widespread public discourse. The event exemplifies how those in power believed excessive force could be justified to teach a lesson. In reality, this was an instance of unjustified use of power on peaceful protestors because authorities looked down upon people struggling for their rights. What comes to mind from recent times is peaceful demonstrators being arrested from Delhi in the aftermath of Indian government introducing CAA.
The quashing of protests and human rights movements by the Indian government in Kashmir, reaching its peak with the abrogation of Article 370, is one example. Punjab itself is striving for justice once again with the Indian farmer protests as the government is reluctant to listen. Next door in Pakistan, peaceful demonstration and advocacy by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement has been in trouble with the authorities with little room for debate in the public sphere. As recently as April 17, 2021, police opened fire at workers gathered to demand an increase in wages at a power plant in southeast Bangladesh. Decades after independence, these may seem like isolated issues in democratic countries with their own systems, but a common thread that runs through them is a brutal colonial legacy. While over 70 years may seem like a long time to progress, a case can be made for truth and reconciliation movements in South Asia that are focused on healing from the traumas of a colonial legacy so that the region may develop its own identity in terms of state-people relations. Events from the pages of history like the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre are a reminder each year that political independence does not guarantee freedom from the shackles of a colonial mindset – while it changes who is at the governing seat, it does not change how people are governed.